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Pileated Woodpecker


The Pileated woodpecker is a large bird, 16-20 inches long, nearly as large as the common crow. They are named for the bright red crested cap on the top of their heads. The adult males also have a red mustache, or strip on either side of the bill.

They are very dark brown, so dark that they often appear black, with contrasting white marks on the face, above and below the mustache. They appear entirely black or brown until they fly, then a prominent white patch on the underside of the wings is visible from below.

Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker


This woodpecker needs mature forests, although the tree types are less important than the availability of large trees. They are found in forestland north up the eastern seaboard and mid-Atlantic states of the US, west across southern Canada into British Columbia, and south along into Washington, Oregon and northern California. They are occasionally found in heavily wooded urban and suburban areas.

Research suggests that they will forage in younger stands of trees, but that their nesting preferences are for trees exceeding 70 years of growth. They are non-migratory, holding and defending year-round territories, although as with many species the northern and higher elevation birds will seek out more hospitable winter conditions. While Pileated pairs will usually eject intruders, during the winer months they will allow visitors to their territories.


The primary food source for the Pileated woodpecker is carpenter ants drilled from within the wood by extensive hammering and pecking. Nearly all of their foraging is done on, and in, dead trees. They drill large squarish or rectangular holes in search of prey, and in smaller trees these can weaken the trunk so much that the tree cracks off above the excavation site. In addition to trunk excavations, they will also peel off the bark and probe in search of termites and other boring insects, and will even forage on the ground in fallen logs or exposed ant hills. The force of their trunk drilling often attracts other woodpeckers and bird species. Hairy woodpeckers will follow behind Pileated woodpeckers clearing the cavities of remaining insects, as will some species of wrens.

Pileated woodpeckers are active drummers and their powerful bills and large size gives their drumming a particular resonance. Their drumming can sometimes be heard a half-mile away. They will also persist drumming for long periods of time, sometimes several hours with 60-90 second intervals in between.

This type of woodpecker mates for life and excavates new nesting sites annually. While they seem to prefer live, older trees they will also occasionally nest in utility poles. By necessity, the cavities are quite large and the opening to the nests will exceed four inches in height and 3 inches in width. Both parents participate in the excavation, which takes 3 weeks to a month to complete. These cavities, once abandoned by the Pileated, are important for dozens of other birds and animals in the forests.

Quick Facts

  1. Until the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in remote areas of the southern United States, once thought to be extinct, the Pileated was thought to be the largest of the true woodpeckers alive in North America.
  2. To accommodate its size, the Pileated Woodpecker needs large trees for nesting. In second growth and young forests there need to be enough large trees left to attract the Pileated to roost and nest. However, these trees are typically taller than the surrounding forest, as well as larger in diameter and present a lightening risk during the spring electrical storms common throughout large sections of their range.

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